By Alex Baker
As the August commencement of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics draws closer, the picture on the ground in Brazil is far from rosy.
Doubts persist over the readiness of many of the venues, as do concerns about providing security for athletes and fans. However, the greatest cause for concern is centered around an alarming outbreak of the Zika virus.
Symptoms of Zika, which is spread by mosquitos and has predominantly been found in the Caribbean and Latin America, include rash, headaches, and joint pain. The virus has also been linked with more serious illnesses.
In newborn babies, it can cause microcephaly, an untreatable neurological condition, in which a child’s head doesn’t grow in relation to the rest of the body, leading to developmental problems and other issues.
In adults, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can result in temporary paralysis and permanent nerve damage.
There is no vaccine for Zika and the CDC advises protection against mosquito bites as the main precaution against it.
Already, we’ve seen a number of very high-profile athletes – including golfer Rory McIlroy and cyclist Tejay van Garderen – withdraw from this summer’s games over fears about Zika. It seems entirely likely that we will see more athletes drop out before the games begin next month.
With the virus posing its biggest threat to pregnant women and unborn children, questions have been raised about whether Zika could deter the United States Women’s National Team from taking part in this summer’s games.
Earlier this year U.S. goalkeeper, Hope Solo, someone who’s never been shy about saying what’s on her mind, added fuel to that fire by threatening to skip the Rio Olympics over Zika concerns.
However, the U.S. no. 1 goalkeeper later came forward to say she would “begrudgingly” participate after all, although she planned to limit the time she spent outside when not training or competing.
“I strongly believe that no athlete should be put into this position – to decide between your Olympic dreams and your own health,” said Solo, speaking to CNBC. “I’m not sure I’m even going to be leaving the hotel room, outside of practice.”
The outspoken Solo is not the only member of the USWNT to express worries over the virus.
“The Zika virus is definitely a concern,” said U.S. forward Alex Morgan, in an interview with Health Magazine. “You don’t know how long the virus lasts in your system, and that’s an issue for someone who’s trying to get pregnant.”
“I am concerned, but I really do trust the International Olympic Committee about traveling in Brazil. It is kind of scary,” added Morgan, who has said she plans on having children someday.
“It’s obviously concerning and serious the issues that have been raised,” said U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath. “I think as an athlete we can probably feel the most secure that we’ll be pretty well taken care of.’
But Heath agrees that Zika is “not anything to mess around with,” and like Solo, plans on taking recommended precautions like applying bug spray and limiting time spent outdoors.
Thankfully, at the moment, there are no indications that apprehensions over Zika will be enough to result in the USWNT withdrawing from the competition.
Currently, the team is in the Midwest preparing for its final warm-up matches before the tournament kicks off next month.
Jill Ellis’ World Cup championship-winning side will face South Africa at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9 before taking on Costa Rica at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, KA on July 22.
The USWNT will begin its quest for a third-consecutive, and fifth overall, Olympic gold medal on August 3, when it faces New Zealand in Belo Horizonte.
Images by Reuters and Shanti Bars.